➣ By Lingjun Kong
Technology has advanced to a stage where the term “mind reader” is no longer mainly associated with the fortuneteller, but rather, a machine, especially in areas such as East Asia. Neuroscientists have reached the point in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology to be able to actually read someone’s mind. As ludicrous as that sounds, this indispensable tool in neurotechnology and cognitive research can determine several levels of basic thoughts. fMRI research, particularly in social cognition, personality, and emotion, have generated millions of dollars in government funding in Japan and China. The vast array of applications of a potential mindreading machine, as well as the ethical implications that come with it, can drastically change society. However, at the current status of development, the level of “mind reading” that fMRI technology can determine is truly basic and at times inaccurate.
An fMRI scan is able to “read” minds by scanning a person’s neural activity. A subject is scanned by the fMRI, during which he or she is given a stimulus,such as a question, an image or a video, causing oxygen to flow to certain parts of the brain through bloodstreams. Depending on the rate of oxygen flow, the magnetic properties of the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the blood change. The fMRI receives and interprets this information and transmits it into a running map of the areas of strong oxygen- carrying blood flow and brain activity. So, if a person responds to a stimulus in a certain way, scientists can see which part of the brain is firing, thus “reading” his or her mind.
Various studies have been undertaken to test the extent of this “mind reading” technology. Neuroscientists in China were able to identify seven years ago that the GO game player, a traditional Chinese strategy board game, indicated a stronger activation in the right parietal area of the brain, which contrasts the heavy use of the left side in similar games such as chess .One study aimed to predict a patient’s intention to either add or subtract two numbers. Using fMRI scans, they were able to correctly predict his intention 71% of the time. Although showing a percentage notably higher than the fifty-fifty of an uneducated guess, this study is a clear interpretation of the early stages of fMRI applications of mind reading. Another study published in Nature presented a set of 1,750 images to patients, measuring the activity in specific areas of the visual cortex of the brain. Then, oneby- one, each image was presented to the patients, and the scientists were able to determine which image was being shown. Other studies have ventured into emotions and personality, testing patients’ responses to virtual reality situations that would invoke stress or pleasure. Not only in the medical field, the possibilities of fMRI scanning at the areas of Neuromarketing, Neuroeconomics and Neuroforensics are also endless and only the tip of the iceberg has been studied.
Neuromarketing: Coke or Pepsi?
Several commercial businesses have been utilizing the powers of fMRI technology to gauge consumer preferences. Known as “neuromarketing,” the use of neuroscience and clinical psychology for commercial gains has become a more and more popular application. To gain the powers of persuasion through advertising, neuromarketing has proven to be an influential tool. A study of the Brain Sciences Institute proposes that successful advertising does indeed cause consumers to be more emotionally engaged as well as more likely to remember the product. Another study conducted at Baylor College of Medicine suggests that neuromarketing may be part of the reason why people buy Coke when they prefer the taste of Pepsi. Even though neuromarketing can result in increased sales and better product design by matching consumer preferences, this interdisciplinary field is still young and only a few businesses have incorporated it into their advertising campaigns.
Secrets of Weight Loss?
In recent years, functional neuroimaging research has yielded a wealth of intriguing fodder for journalists but few scientific breakthroughs. We’ve learned, for instance, the nucleus accumbens brain regions light up when we fall in love, our reward centers of the brain light up more as a wine’s price increases (even if the taste of the wine stays the same), and the brains of meditating monks show little change, since they exercise greater control over their frontal lobes. Functional MRI has begun to contribute to many psychological areas. For example, a study on weight loss has shown that those with greater success in weight loss programs can attribute their weight loss to greater inhibitory control in response to images of food when scanned with fMRI. At the other end of the spectrum, fMRI has been used to locate biomarkers in the brains of soldiers with posttraumatic stress disorder.
fMRI has already proven to be an extraordinary tool that few would have predicted to arrive so soon. The prospect of a machine capable of reading minds, peering into unconscious thoughts and reading a state of consciousness that is hidden even to the people themselves, will provide not only countless implementations and applications but many ethical challenges as well. The technology is still limited and as it develops, so must society. There should be no surprise that in the next decade, this “mind reader” will be used wildly in East Asia. Better tell those fortunetellers to look for new jobs.
Lingjun Kong, PMP
Virtual Reality Medical Center
President of Virtual Reality Medical Institute (VRMI) in Brussels, Belgium. Executive VP Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC), based in San Diego and Los Angeles, California. CEO of Interactive Media Institute a 501c3 non-profit Clinical Instructor in Department of Psychiatry at UCSD Founder of CyberPsychology, CyberTherapy, & Social Networking Conference Visiting Professor at Catholic University Milan.